Except for three provinces, Italy overwhelmingly voted against a reform of their constitution. It would have been the most extensive transformation of the republic since the end of World War Two and the demise of monarchy. As promised, the country’s youthful and well-liked prime minister Matteo Renzi announced his resignation after this sound defeat. Moreover, he said, he would quit politics.
The reform would have streamlined lawmaking in the country’s usually dysfunctional political system. Crucially, it would have strengthened the prime minister’s powers to expedite decision-making. On the face of things, that would have been tremendously helpful for a country that has had 63 governments in 70 years.
Yet one healthy argument that those who voted “No” proclaimed were their qualms about too powerful governments. For a country that has seen fascism, that is a marker of how robust its political education has been in the last seven decades.
Moreover, this is not a fundamental change of course, like the United Kingdom’s decision to abandon the European Union or, across the Atlantic, the election of an ignorant, incompetent, and revolting individual as the president of the United States, to the endless shame of Americans who cast their vote for such an appalling character. Italians erred on the side of caution and chose to keep a political order that, at the of the day, has served them not too badly. It was under the current Constitution that the country surged to become the fifth largest economy in the world.
It may also be mistaken to lump all these recent events together. Right in the neighborhood, Austrians soundly defeated a Nazi sympathizer to lead their country and gave their vote to a leftist candidate with solid democratic credentials. So, for once in this troubling year, some degree of sanity has prevailed and voters have expressed confidence in the status quo of democracy, tolerance and equality, the founding principles of what is collectively known as the West.
At the same time, however, there is the palpable risk that Italians have given a boost to their own breed of populism, the Five Stars insurgent movement and, more disturbingly, the Northern League, a separatist and anti-immigrant organization. That, too, may have been deliberate, and that is reason for concern. And that’s why we need Renzi and other politicians who are rebuffed at the polls to stay on and fight the good fight. Too many politicians are deciding to quit in the face of adversity. Thus, they are conceding the field to demagogues and extreme forces that until now were lurking in the dark or the margins of political life.
What matters in any given society is not only what is said publicly and in the streets, but those conversations that are spoken in whispers in more secluded quarters, like home or a gathering with friends. And there, away from prying ears, you do hear grumbles about immigrants pouring in – Europe is tiny and so are streets in European towns and cities: any stranger stands out more sharply than anywhere in the U.S. – about unemployment and about vague suspicions that Italy, or Italians, are being taken advantage of. By whom or why it is unclear, but it doesn’t matter: there is this sense of malaise.
It may very well stem from the rapid transformation of the economy. The pace of innovation and mechanization is such that is becoming very difficult, if not impossible, to keep pace with it. The natural cycle of a working life has been disrupted. Prior to the “Rise of the Robots,” your participation into the economy was divided into three great stages: learning; working; and retirement.
But the demise of so many occupations is forcing some into sudden and unwanted retirement, a euphemism for unemployment and all the associated ills. The more fortunate ones are those capable of learning, unlearning and relearning, in order to adjust to these mad times. How long before it comes to feel like mice spinning on a static wheel, not making any progress but just surviving? Then, of course, there is a tiny, extremely lucky minority that’s riding on the crest of the wave: those are the masters of the new economy. Naturally, these social rearrangements lead to growing divisions.
There is also a deeper reason for this general sense of unease, one that goes beyond the economic disruptions. The nation-state has now grown old and outdated, yet with nothing to replace with. An international polity that emerged in the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 is no longer suitable for a world in which ideas travel, quite literally thanks to the Internet, at the speed of light, and goods do so at any speed that modern transportation and customs controls allow. Yet nothing has emerged yet to put the nation-state out of its misery. And we are all feeling miserable for it, unable to pinpoint why.